Night of the crying women

Image: Bernd Rehbein Pixabay

I’m away from my laptop this week so thought I’d share this, a story that won first place in a competition a few years ago. It’s a longer read than normal but worth it, I hope. As it was part of a Bronte anniversary comp. can any of you guess which of the sisters’ novels inspired it? Answers in the comments, please.

***

‘Got the look of an old lag about her,’ said Grandad, fingertip tapping the rain speckled pane.

‘Like you’d know,’ said Mum. ‘Come on, you’ve sagged again.’ She slipped her arms under his, yanking him up in his chair, plumping his jumper like she was arranging a cushion.

‘Leave me alone,’ he grumbled, swatting at her. ‘I’ve met crooks enough to know one. Come here, our John. Have a look.’ He tugged me close, pointing towards the street below.

From our sixth floor window, I could see the roof of The George Inn where Mum worked on weeknights and next to it the playground, with its crisscross paths and the frame with the missing swings.

‘What?’ I said, not sure what I was looking at.

Then I saw her, hunched against the wind, hair the colour of Tizer whipping from a squashy knitted hat. She pushed a tartan shopping trolley that flapped with empty carrier bags.

‘She’s wearing slippers,’ I said.

‘You see,’ said Grandad. ‘Probably pinched’em from Terry at the market.’

Mum had put on a rain hat and her coat, transforming the hat’s slithering ties into a bow with a twist of her fingers. ‘Her name’s Gracie, she comes in the pub. Downs three milk stouts every night then rolls home.’

Mum headed for the door. ‘The only criminal thing about her is the quarter of gin she hides in her trolley to sneak in her stout. Now Dad, stop talking codswallop. John, off to bed – and mind you brush your teeth.’

***

The next time I saw Gracie, I was sitting on a bench in the playground with Ed and Dougie from the flats. Ed had a bottle of Cream Soda and I’d brought two Penguin biscuits from home to share. Dougie didn’t bring anything – the cupboards in his place were always empty.

I was licking the last squishy chocolate from a Penguin wrapper, when Dougie said, ‘Seen her?’ Gracie was crossing the park with her trolley. ‘Nutter,’ he said and returned to peeling the label off the bottle.

‘Don’t do that,’ said Ed. ‘I want the money back on it.’ He nodded towards Gracie. ‘Mum says we should keep away from that old cow. Says noises come out of her flat at night.’

‘What kind of noises?’ I said.

Ed shrugged. ‘Weird ones. Mum says the old woman’s neighbour Mr Brocklehurst has complained to the council but they don’t give a monkey’s so long as the rent’s paid.’

‘Her trolley rattles like it’s full of empties,’ said Dougie. ‘And she smells like the drain outside the pub.’

‘Wonder what the noises are,’ I said.

Dougie snatched up the Cream Soda bottle and threw it hard. It fell just short of Gracie’s slippers, shattering into a million shards that skittered over the tarmac.

‘Bloody idiot,’ said Ed, punching Dougie hard on the leg. ‘You owe me the money on that.’

Gracie didn’t even pause, but trudged on towards The George.

***

We were walking back from school the next day when Ed raised the subject of Gracie again.

‘I went up to listen at the old bag’s flat last night.’

‘Why?’

‘Cos Mr Brocklehurst is above us and he was moaning and pacing and banging his stick on her wall – noisy pig. So I waited till my dad was watching the news and slipped out. Wanted to hear for myself.’

‘And?’ I said.

His pace slowed to a crawl. ‘Voices. Hers – and others too. Women mainly, but a man an’all – he was shouting. And there was a scraping noise – like chairs dragging across a floor.’

My pulse thudded in my throat. ‘My mum says she lives on her own.’

He nodded, eyes on the ground. ‘And she’s got no telly.’ We walked on in silence, sucking our liquorice sticks until they went soft.

As the shadow of the flats fell over us, Ed said, ‘I’m going back tonight. Coming?’

I stopped. ‘What?’

‘Don’t you want to know what the noises are?’

I was curious, but I hated walking round the flats in the dark. There were too many shadows.

‘Well, I’m going tonight. Coward.’ Ed banged through the double doors.

I paused just a second. ‘Ed! Wait up,’ I shouted.

***

Mum was working at the pub that night and I knew Grandad would be asleep in his armchair by half nine, so I found the torch, put it in my coat pocket and sneaked both into my bedroom. Grandad was snoring by quarter past nine and he didn’t stir as the front door clicked shut behind me.

The light was out on our landing and the weak glow from the torch only lit a small puddle at my feet. Cigarette packets, stubs, a baby’s dummy, all slid in and out of the puddle as I walked.

‘John!’

My heart beat in my ears, the torchlight quivered.

‘Over here.’

Ed stood in the shadow of a flight of stairs, coat over his pyjamas. A second figure stood beside him.

‘Alright, John.’ It was Dougie.

A click and another beam of light shone out, wavering upwards to settle on Ed’s face. ‘I told him what we were doing and he just turned up.’

‘Let’s go sort this old bird out then,’ said Dougie, heading for the lift.

I gave Ed a look but he just shrugged. ‘Yeah, I know. But what could I do?’

All I could think of was spikes of a shattered Cream Soda bottle.

‘Stinks of pee in here,’ said Dougie as the lift groaned and rattled.

A few seconds passed, there was a ping and the doors juddered open.

‘This way,’ said Ed, shining his torch along a row of blank doors.

At each flat I heard a muffled telly and dull voices. I was sure at any second someone would tell us off and send us home. But the wind tumbled empty crisp packets and whistled along the balconies – and no one came. At the end of the row, Ed stopped.

Shining his torch on a peeling door, he whispered, ‘Mr Brocklehurst’s.’ Then, the light slid sideways and we were there.

We listened, breathless.

A thump – loud and solid, like a body hitting the floor – followed by voices. A woman was singing – a tune that pulled at my insides. A man’s voice barked orders – the thwack of a stick. And weeping, the quiet kind of crying someone does when they don’t want other people to hear but can’t keep the tears in. Sadness filled me up, sitting behind my eyes till I felt like it would spill over.

‘What do you think?’ It was Ed, face pale, eyes big as golf balls.

For a second, I had been in the flat with the women, waiting for the stern man with the stick. ‘Is it the same as before?’ I whispered.

He nodded.

I tried to keep my fear pressed down, reminded myself we weren’t babies, that there would be good reason for the noises. But all I could think was one thing.

‘Ghosts?’ I whispered.

A fresh noise – the screech of unoiled metal, so sharp it pricked my eardrums like a needle. My heart beat against my ribs. I ached for the loo, for my bed and realised we hadn’t decided what we’d do when we reached Gracie’s door.

‘It’s open.’ Dougie stepped inside. Ed snatched at his sleeve, but grabbed only air.

‘What shall we do?’ said Ed. In the torchlight, he looked smaller than he did in the day.

There was nothing for it. I took a step, another and I was in.

Soon Ed followed on behind me, our torch beams overlapping, brightening the darkness so it was just light enough to see without bumping into things.

‘Don’t like the smell,’ said Ed.

It was like burning and wee that hadn’t been cleaned away.

‘Dougie!’ I called, but quietly, hoping I was loud enough for Dougie to hear and quiet enough for Gracie not to.

Thwack! The sound of a stick against railings. The pitter-pat of tiny paws.

‘Hell.’ Scampering from the torchlight, over a heap of rags and old newspapers, went one small tan body then another. ‘Mice,’ I breathed.  

Crying again, from our right. I felt Ed’s arm brush mine and realised we’d huddled so close we almost tripped over each other as we walked, though neither of us pulled away. We followed the noise along the hall, towards a doorway glowing with dull orange light. The burnt smell grew stronger, catching at my throat.

‘Dougie?’ My heart tripped fast.

We turned into the room, into the sound of crying, the squeal of metal hurting my head. I stopped, unable to think what was happening.

The air was filled with smoke that stung my eyes and there was an armchair with a body slumped in it, another kneeling on the floor and the noise was so loud and the kneeling figure was Dougie and he looked up at us, his face shining and wet.

‘I think she’s dead,’ he said.

***

Someone had put blankets around our shoulders. Someone else had made us tea.

‘Don’t like tea,’ said Dougie and an ambulance man cuffed him round the head.

I heard the clack of Mum’s heels before I saw her. She stood apart, rain hat in her hand, nodding as a man in a uniform talked.

‘… old asylum nurse … lived onsite there for thirty years – turned her a bit odd I reckon. Didn’t like the quiet when she retired, so one of the staff made a recording – crying, the wardens, squeaking hinges – to help her sleep. Nowt so queer as folk, eh?’

Mum arms were crossed, face stern as the Queen’s on a stamp.

‘What were you thinking?’ she said.

I shrugged, too tired to explain and not sure I could. ‘Is she okay?’

Mum sighed. ‘She will be. Dropped a fag on the carpet – could’ve burned the whole of Thornfield House down. Come on. Let’s get you home.’

Ed raised a hand as I passed, Dougie too, his face smeared with drying tears and dirt. Both of them looked worried, as if they could still hear the women crying.

‘See you at school,’ I said.

Competition Win : On the Premises

 

Yesterday I received an email from the lovely people at On the Premises online fiction magazine, telling me that I had won their recent mini-contest to write a 50 word story with the theme ‘ten’ or ‘tenth’. You’ll discover the relevance of the above photo if you read the story.

As there were 126 entries, I’m pretty chuffed to have won, so thank you On the Premises!

See HERE to read my story, the wonderful runners up and honourable mentions.

As a side note, I found the competition on Cathy’s Comps and Calls, a great site for all fiction writers, so if you want to enter short story or poetry competitions but don’t have the energy to trawl the net searching for them, you could do worse than subscribe to Cathy’s blog.

 

Competition Win : Esther Newton Short Story Prize.

Chess pawn wearing a gold crown

Image : Pixabay

I like the discipline of entering a short story competition – deadlines to keep, word counts to adhere to, themes to inspire (or frustrate).

They’re good for the writing muscles, even though success is often elusive.

When you receive yet another rejection (or when you hear nothing but yourself hitting refresh on your emails, searching for a message that never comes), you remind yourself that these things are subjective.

That your stunningly provocative tale about a ginger Tom sporting a bowler and plus fours might have hit the judge’s desk on the very day he / she discovered they have a potentially fatal cat allergy and their Nana’s just been knocked down by a runaway lorry, buried alive under its load of hard, domed hats and knee length trousers.  

And yes, you tell yourself that rejections are badges of honour to wear with pride – even if you do wonder how many such ‘badges’ you have to wear before someone gives you the one that reads ‘winner’.

And this is all very well and good and yes you know ‘J.K Rowling was rejected fifty squillion times before she was published’ but in the end she was quite nicely compensated for all that and by the way, when’s she going to move over and let someone else have a go?

However, amid the slew of rejections, the deafening silence that means ‘thanks but no thanks’, there is light shimmering in the grey.

A couple of weeks ago, I entered a competition run by author and tutor for The Writers Bureau, Esther Newton. The competition was on the theme of The Discovery and last week I discovered I’d been shortlisted. Lovely to be shortlisted and by someone so experienced and knowledgeable – delightful.

Yesterday, Esther announced the winning stories and … my story

Under the Skin

was there in first place!

To say I’m chuffed is an understatement. So thank you to Esther and congratulations to Stephanie Buosi and Suzanne Forman, my fellow winners.

Budge up, J.K – we’re on our way.

 

 

 

Writing Magazine competition win

 

Gold winners trophy

Image: Pixabay

Back in April, I entered a short story competition run by Writing Magazine. For those unfamiliar, it’s probably the biggest selling writing magazine in the UK, aimed at aspiring and professional authors.

I’ve entered a lot of their competitions over the years – I could wallpaper my spare room with the submissions they’ve rejected – and only been shortlisted twice, once for a short story and once for a novel extract.

The notification period for this one came and went and I experienced my usual emotions, telling myself it was fine not to have won – no, really, FINE – analysing why the story was bad, why my work wasn’t sodding good enough for those darn picky judges – again.

Then an email plinked into my inbox – congratulating me on my competition win.

And you know what, instead of being delighted, chuffed, bowled over my my own skill and talent – I assumed the email was fraudulent and forwarded it to a writer friend for a second opinion! 

Well, my loves, the story did win and has now been published in print and online – the link’s here for all who want a few minutes’ read. May I recommend making an event of it – perhapes fetching a nice cup of something hot and a biscuit (a Penguin for that retro feel, or perhaps a chocolate Hobnob for you dunkers)?

It feels like quite a milestone, after submitting to the magazine so often. Seeing the story there in print and reading the editor’s comments online was the most delightful thing I’ve experienced since I started writing.

And for those in the UK who want to feel the paper in your hands, do rush to your local WH Smith’s and buy a copy (October issue). Even if you don’t like my story, the rest of the mag is very good.

Happy reading all.


P.S A public thanks to Maureen (whose glorious poetry you can read here and here) and Jackie (a wonderfully talented short story writer), my writing group pals, without whose advice and feedback the story would not have won.